The following headline appeared on a Wall Street Journal article that was published on March 27-28: "The Exotic Materials That Could One Day Replace Silicon." Of course, that's the hard copy version of the headline. As is so often the case, the headline differs in its online version. Don't be surprised by a different headline when you click that link.
Don't be surprised if you have a hard time actually accessing the article, either. When non-subscribers click the link, they may experience a paywall problem, and they may not be able to read the article at all. My apologies if that turns out to be true for any reader of this blog posting, but just in case a reader might have that experience, the following excerpt is intended to give you the flavor:
Researchers on the bleeding edge of physics, chemistry and engineering are experimenting with exotic-sounding substances to be used in microchips. They include graphene, black phosphorus, transition metal dichalcogenides, and boron nitride nanosheets. Collectively, they’re known as 2-D materials, since they are flat sheets only an atom or two thick. Largely unknown just 20 years ago, they are now regularly fabricated in labs, using methods as mundane as a blender and as tricky as high-temperature vapor deposition.
Some of the results of this research can already be found in devices on sale today, but the bulk are expected to turn up over the next decade, bringing new capabilities to our gadgets. These will include novel features such as infrared night-vision mode in smartphones, and profound ones such as microchips that are 10 times faster and more power-efficient. This could enable new forms of human-computer interaction, such as augmented-reality systems that fit into everyday eyeglasses.
Naturally, I was intrigued by thinking about all the things that these new materials might allow us to do - and this was, in fact, the main focus of the article. As our technology advances, we enter into what the article says has been the realm of "science fiction." As we do that, it may start to seem like we can do anything!
Instead of getting too engrossed in the specifics of what these new technologies might allow us to accomplish, I quickly got to thinking more philosophically, and considering the nature of our human relationship to both "science" and "technology."
"Science" I take to be our knowledge of the natural world - and the disciplined study that brings us that knowledge of how that world is structured, and how it operates. "Technology" I take to be the use of science - our knowledge of the natural world - to build and to benefit the human world in which we most immediately live.
As our "science" advances - our knowledge of the natural world - "technology" makes us ever more capable of doing amazing things. Our technological capabilities increase enormously. That is the phenomenon that this article is documenting.
What worries me is the possibility that our increased technological abilities will lead us to think that it is we, and our technologies, that are most important, and not the natural world itself. I have recently discussed this issue in a blog posting called, "White Sky In The Morning?" I am still thinking about this subject.
I think it is a huge mistake to decide that our technological capabilities have put us, now, in a position to "operate" or "control" the natural world. It's tempting to go there, when we consider what our technologies allow us to do.
Let's not go there. Let's not make that mistake!
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